What is student agency?
Student agency refers to learning through activities that are meaningful and relevant to learners, driven by their interests, and often self-initiated with appropriate guidance from teachers. To put it simply, student agency gives students voice and often, choice, in how they learn.
This gives students a stake in choosing from opportunities provided for them—perhaps you give students a choice between projects, writing assignments, or other activities. Their ability to make a decision triggers a greater investment of interest and motivation.
How is student agency used in schools?
Student agency is a component of the United States Department of Education’s definition of personalized learning. It empowers students to influence their own path to mastery. By encouraging students to take initiative, you enhance their cognitive ability to take control, increase motivation, and ensure students respond to their activities.
How can I practice student agency in my classroom?
Guidance from an instructor is essential as students choose their direction. Imagine an agent guiding an actor or athlete to good career decisions. Within student agency, the teacher takes on the agent role in looking out for their student client.
Students must feel that their voice and self-direction are increased, even if they don’t get their way all the time. Think back to a lesson plan you were especially jazzed about that fell flat once you introduced it to students. Student agency keeps students engaged since they are part of the lesson plan in the first place.
What impact does student agency have?
Remember, students must also be able to demonstrate mastery. If students know what their goal is and trust their teacher is going to allow them to move through their chosen path to the goal while providing expert feedback, students are more invested in their own growth.
“Any time you read about feedback—and students love meaningful feedback—you’ll read that it is motivating when a student can understand, take action, and feel like they are in control.”
Cheryl Ballou, Education Officer
On the other hand, student agency is NOT…
- A free-for-all for students: They need your guidance, and sometimes too many choices can be counterproductive instead of inspiring.
- Lacking accountability: Students must demonstrate mastery of concepts and skills.
- A replacement for an expert teacher: While students choose their own direction, they will still require course-correction along the path to mastery.
Let’s see an example
Mrs. Martinez’s fourth-grade class is studying butterflies. Together, they have read some butterfly books and are caring for monarch caterpillars. For their final project of the unit, Mrs. Martinez gives her students three options to choose from:
- Create a Google Map that details the pathway monarch butterflies take every year during their migration
- Keep an illustrated daily record of the monarchs’ final stage of development and produce a scrapbook of their life cycle
- Produce a blog post that presents evidence about the two sides of the debate over environmental protections for butterflies
Each option gives students the opportunity to demonstrate their mastery in different ways. Because students are able to choose the option that interests them most, Mrs. Martinez has used student agency to personalize their learning